The Manchester City team lineup, released one hour before their game at home to Huddersfield Town, set minds whirring as to how Pep Guardiola would arrange his chosen eleven.
The inclusion of three centre backs but no obvious choice at right back or right wing back led to many pre-match guesses. Even once the game started, it still wasn’t entirely clear.
Numerical descriptions for team lineups can often be useful but, in this instance, it might not be the best idea to limit the shape to a set of numbers.
As with almost all teams, the attacking formation is different to the defensive one. Guardiola, though, takes this to the extreme with his sides adopting completely different shapes as players transition between positions as possession is lost and won.
A few important facets of Manchester City’s tactics during this game help create a picture of what was happening, even if it can’t be explained by a short list of numbers.
On Sunday, Benjamin Mendy was key to the system.
Guardiola used the dynamism and attacking verve of the Frenchman to great effect down the left. In defence, he was a left back but Manchester City rarely defended so, for most the game, he performed his attacking role as a left winger.
Guardiola likes his full backs raw and dynamic before morphing them into his ideal wide player. Mendy, Kyle Walker and Danilo all fit this mould: the three are known as much for their athleticism as they are their technique.
REUTERS/Darren StaplesMendy is still settling in, having had almost a full season at the club disrupted by injury. But his impact on the first team is already being felt with three assists in his first two games this season.
The Frenchman had more touches of the ball than any of the midfielders against Huddersfield and, despite his adventurous style, he still managed a pass accuracy of 91%.
The touch map from WhoScored shows all his positive actions from the game, including three shots.
Where Mendy’s role on the left was fairly straightforward, Bernardo was playing a different role on the right, working with John Stones to provide the balance and build-up play down this side.
Manchester City pushed right into the opposition half when they had the ball and the centre backs moved well beyond the half-way line.
Stones wasn’t a typical centre back in this game. He nudged across to right back when defending, and, in attack, he was effectively a right-sided defensive midfielder.
Photo credit: James NaltonIn attack, Bernardo stayed wide, similar to the role he might normally play as a creative inside right (see above).
When City were without the ball, though he tucked in to form a diamond in midfield which had David Silva at the tip, Ilkay Gundogan on the left, and Fernandinho anchoring in front of the defence.
There were rumours Sergio Aguero would be dropped for this game after his poor showing against Arsenal, giving Gabriel Jesus the chance to regain some confidence after a disappointing World Cup. In the event, Guardiola threw a curveball, keeping Aguero in the team but also adding Jesus as his strike partner.
Manchester City were fluid in attack with Silva, Bernardo, Gundogan and Mendy, all joining the centre forwards at the top end of the pitch at various stages.
REUTERS/Darren StaplesBut it was Aguero and Jesus who did the real damage: the former opening the scoring before going on to bag a hat-trick; the latter netting the second, providing the boost in confidence his manager had planned.
The double threat up front was needed against Huddersfield’s low block. Manchester City unleashed a number of different attacking tricks against a team who defended with eleven men near their own box for much of the game.
Manchester City opened the scoring via a tactic they have used sporadically ever since Ederson joined the club from Benfica.
The Brazilian goalkeeper has the ability to kick the ball huge distances from goal kicks and Guardiola takes advantage of the fact a player cannot be offside in this situation to cause the opposition a number of problems.
The most obvious benefit was seen with the goal. Ederson launched his kick towards the opposition area where Aguero lurked, the Argentine beating Ben Hamer to the ball before lofting his shot over the backtracking defenders into the goal.
Photo credit: James Nalton
The problem for opposition sides is that, if they drop back to mark the striker on these occasions, then it opens up space elsewhere for Manchester City to begin their build-up play from the back or in midfield. It’s a no-win situation for the opponent.
The screenshot above is not from the goal but from the same situation shortly after. Hamer is shouting anxiously at his defenders to get back and mark Aguero. However, the centre backs may have had different orders from their manager.
Bigger tests will come for Manchester City, but Huddersfield posed problems which they will have to overcome against a number of sides who will turn up at the Etihad merely to defend.
On this evidence, Guardiola's side have numerous ways to break them down and it may not be the last time they rack up six goals or more this season.